Ron Onesti: Memorial Day thoughts on Arcada Heroes

  • Arcada Theatre organist Jim Shaffer of Aurora plays a short set at the age of 78 at the Arcade Theatre in St. Charles.

    Arcada Theatre organist Jim Shaffer of Aurora plays a short set at the age of 78 at the Arcade Theatre in St. Charles. Daily Herald File Photo, 2013

  • Prior to his death, Jim Shaffer had been volunteering at The Arcada as an usher and organ repairman for more than 30 years.

    Prior to his death, Jim Shaffer had been volunteering at The Arcada as an usher and organ repairman for more than 30 years. Daily Herald File Photo, 2013

  • Former Arcada Theater organist Jim Shaffer of Aurora, who died in 2013.

    Former Arcada Theater organist Jim Shaffer of Aurora, who died in 2013. Courtesy of Onesti Entertainment Corp.

 
 
Posted5/29/2020 6:00 AM

This crazy year, as we all remember those lost in battle, and celebrate the lives unselfishly and courageously given to foster our freedoms, we may have had a bit more time to reflect at home.

For me, every day is Veterans Day. I thank God for the protection provided by our military, first responders, and now, our front liners. I celebrate the job my father did in World War II. He's my biggest wartime hero.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

On Memorial Day, however, I particularly remember my dad's foxhole buddies who gave their lives all around him. It was because of them he came home alive. It was the pain those families suffered after the telegrams arrived with horrible news that I also feel. Not to the degree they did, of course, but I remember them as if they were a part of my extended family.

This Memorial Day had an additional meaning to me. As I sat home in quarantine lockdown, I had the time to formulate an additional perspective about this day of remembrance. I was going through some old photos and came upon a picture of our former pipe organ master, Jim Shaffer. He came with the Arcada Theatre when I got it, with 40 years in before I got there. Jim worked tirelessly for countless hours maintaining the building's 1927 Marr & Colton pipe organ when he wasn't performing his duties as head of volunteer ushers. When he played that historic instrument to the delight of the audience, I would affectionately refer to him as our "resident rock star."

We lost Jim in 2013. At 78 years young, he was as spry, jovial and active as anyone half his age. It made me think back about those who have been a part of this crazy Arcada ride I have been on the past 15 years -- those we have lost; those who have been backstage, onstage or in front of the stage, who have created a painful void by their departure.

There was a young man who was with us pretty much from the beginning. The only time he didn't have a screwdriver in his hand was when he was hammering in a nail somewhere. His name was Dave Michaelson and at 50, he was definitely gone too soon. All he thought about was The Arcada, never shy about sharing his marketing and operational ideas while running cable for the sound system.

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Another guy who ate, drank and slept The Arcada was "The Big Guy in the Lobby," Dan Maas. His job was to greet guests as they entered under the marquee, and welcome them to our humble music palace. He had a GREAT smile and transformed "first-timers" into family members by the time they got to the end of the hall.

I have been truly blessed with the opportunities The Arcada has presented for me. One of the greatest gifts I have received has been the ability to work with showbiz icons -- legends with whom I had grown up watching on television, seen in the movies or heard on the radio. Several have left us, but what they also left were grand memories of fabulous performances in our small, yet bustling, town of St. Charles, Illinois.

Don Rickles was the "King of Insults" on stage, but offstage was one of the kindest persons I have ever met. Joan Rivers was fast-paced and all business, but really took the time to learn about the history of the theater. When I asked her why she worked so hard after all these years, she replied, "When you are Jewish and your family lived through the Great Depression AND the Holocaust, you learn to appreciate every cent, and every opportunity." A great life lesson for me.

Debbie Reynolds was such a beautiful and classy lady with a great sense of humor. She gave a heartwarming retrospective of her career, all the while making each member of the audience feel as if they were in her own living room as her personal guest. She WAS classic Hollywood, and she was on OUR stage!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It was just after the 911 tragedy that we held an 80th birthday show for Patti Page. Of course, along with so many other classic "Americana" songs, her hit "The Doggie in the Window" was just great to experience live. But she sang a song about one of the 911 pilots who had some final words for his young daughter before his heroic demise. I am tearing up just thinking about that truly moving performance.

Another master that I was fortunate enough to not only work with, but also to befriend, was Frank Sinatra Jr. The first time I met him he was stoic and somewhat stern. But as the years went on and our relationship became more familiar, his lighter side came out. He told a select few of us dry jokes and even did an impersonation of Dean Martin on our stage, much to the surprise of his own band! He loved it at The Arcada, even sending a video of himself congratulating me on an award I was to receive because he could not make the event.

For me, one of the top three Hollywood legends was Mickey Rooney. We had his 89th birthday on our stage. Before performing a musical retrospective of his 85 years in the business, he spent several days with me getting acquainted with us and making promotional appearances to help sell tickets to his show.

One of those appearances I will never forget was at a big VFW dinner. I walked in with Mickey and jaws dropped! The audience was made up of mainly war vets from WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He automatically received a standing ovation as he surprisingly took out of his pocket his OWN VFW hat!

When someone from the audience stood up and thanked Mickey for "entertaining our boys overseas," Mickey got emotional. With rosy red cheeks He passionately replied to the entire audience, "Hey! I was in those foxholes. I lost my war buddies. I fought for this great country." He then pulled his jacket lapel back to show a distinguished medal he received for his combat duty. Another emotional standing ovation ensued.

And to those in our audiences over the years whom we have lost, I salute you as well. Your names are too numerous to mention, but it was your love of music and support of The Arcada that helped us get to where we are today. You will always have a place in our hearts, and a permanent place in our front row.

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email ron@oshows.com.

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